PRESIDENTS’ DAY by Dr. Patrick H. Lau

“Let him who looks for a monument to Washington look around the United States.  Your freedom, your independence, your national power, your prosperity, and your prodigious growth are a monument to him.”  ~Louis Kossuth

Presidents’ (President’s) Day is a holiday honoring George Washington. He was born on February 22, 1732.  He valiantly commanded the American Continental Army in its drawn out and ultimately successful struggle in the Revolutionary War (1775—1783). In 1787, Washington, together with other leading legislators at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, created and ratified the United States Constitution. On April 30, 1789, he took office as the first president of the United States. He successfully guided the new nation through its first eight years, establishing a strong federal government.

As for foreign policy, Washington diplomatically kept the nation out of the conflict between France and England by staying in a neutral position in 1790s. He is called the “Father of Our Country,” and is a symbol of honor, dignity and honesty. Washington once said, “In executing the duties of my present important station, I can promise nothing but purity of intentions, and, in carrying these into effect, fidelity and diligence.”  The U.S. Congress declared Washington’s Birthday a federal holiday on January 31, 1879 to honor the first president. In 1885, President Chester Arthur signed a legislation officially making Washington’s Birthday a federal holiday.

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809. He was sworn in as the sixteenth president of the United States on March 4, 1861. He took an overwhelming role as commander-in-chief in the Civil War (1861-1865), fought between the North (Union states) and the South (Confederate states). On January 1, 1863, he issued the  Emancipation Proclamation, considered as his most significant action as president, which paved the way for the Thirteenth Amendment (Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction). He achieved the remarkable success of preserving the Union and abolishing slavery. Abraham Lincoln wrote, “I leave you, hoping that the lamp of liberty will burn in your bosoms until there shall no longer be a doubt that all men are created free and equal.”

On April 14, 1865, while Lincoln was attending at Ford’s Theater in Washington,

John Wilkes Booth shot him in the back of his head. The president passed away the next day. Lincoln’s birthday was celebrated after his assassination; however, it was not honored as a federal holiday.

In 1968, the congress passed the legislation, “Monday Holidays Act”, placing existing federal holidays to be observed on Mondays to create a number of three-day weekends for the federal employees. This act was meant to simplify the yearly calendar of holidays and promote American’s spiritual and economic life. Consequently, enactment of the Monday Holiday Act moved the commemoration of Washington’s Birthday from February 22 to the third Monday in February. The name of the federal holiday, Washington’s Birthday, however, has never been changed by a Congressional stipulation. And George Washington is the only president whose birthday is legally observed.

Many states have been celebrating Lincoln’s birthday as a public holiday; however, it was never proclaimed a federal holiday.  After the “Monday Holidays Act “became effective in 1971, it has been gradually and mistakenly believed that the day had been legally changed from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents’ day for the observance of the two presidents’ birthdays together. Oftentimes, people consider Presidents’ Day as a day honoring the legacies of all the presidents. There have been 44 presidents of the United States. The five living presidents are: George H.W. Bush, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

Presidents’ Day is traditionally regarded as a time of patriotic celebration and remembrance. Around Presidents’ Day, schools, particularly grade and middle schools, time and again teach students about the presidents of the United States. For the observance of Presidents’ Day, many communities stage pageants, patriotic parades and reenactments of significant events in the life of George Washington. For instance, Alexandria hosts a weekend of celebration each year during Presidents’ Day Weekend, which includes history tours, open house at several historic sites and a banquet and ball, as well as the largest Washington Birthday Parade in the United States. At Mount Vernon, the cherished home of George Washington, celebration includes breakfast with George Washington and America’s Smallest Hometown Parade.  At Colonial Williamsburg, festivity includes special interactive activities and performances, a Sunday afternoon Salute to the Presidents at Market Square featuring the popular Fifes and Drums.  Many of the birthday observance activities and events are also held at The National Park Service.

Washington and Lincoln have still been the two most recognized presidents of the United States. Nevertheless, nowadays the holiday is popularly understood as a day to honor the lives and achievements of all the American presidents.

 

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